While FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC share a long and colorful history as rivals on the soccer pitch, their most recent match saw them in wholly uncharted territory. On Tuesday, July 23, the European powerhouses met for the first time in Japan, for the inaugural Rakuten Cup, thrilling an audience of nearly 52,000 fans at Saitama Stadium.
Fans from both clubs flocked to Saitama, in the Greater Tokyo Area, to catch the English Premier League side and Spain’s reigning La Liga champions face off before the opening of their respective seasons.
Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham scored to give the Londoners the opening goal on a night when both sides tested each other’s defenses with poised and creative attacks. The Londoners doubled the scoring in the second half with a pinpoint strike from Ross Barkley before midfielder Ivan Rakitic pulled one back for Barcelona to leave the score 2-1 on a hot, humid and hugely enjoyable night in Saitama.
“We came to see a world-class match,” said Mayu Imura and Suguru Ikeda, who were not disappointed by the meeting of these two titans.
Elsewhere, the Kaneko family arrived hours before the game to soak up the excitement.
“We’ve been supporting Barcelona for many, many years but it’s our first time to see them actually playing so we’re super excited,” said Hatsue Kaneko, who was with her two grandsons. “Since it’s not that easy to go see Barcelona play in Spain, we’re delighted that they came to Japan,” added Kaneko.
A Sporting Commitment
By hosting the inaugural Rakuten Cup, Rakuten continued its long-standing commitment to sporting communities worldwide.
In Japan, Rakuten was awarded the NPB’s first new franchise in half a century in 2004 when the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were formed, while J.League side Vissel Kobe—who will be meeting FC Barcelona for the second game of the Rakuten Cup later this week—joined the Rakuten family in 2015.
On the world stage, Rakuten is recognized for its partnerships with iconic sports teams such as FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors. Rakuten has also partnered with the NBA, Spartan Race and most recently, the Davis Cup.
Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani, who is an avid sports fan, was on hand at the end of the night to present Chelsea with their new silverware.
“We hope the games will raise the technical level and global profile of Japanese soccer, and we are excited about inspiring the next generation of young talent,” said Mikitani.
Friends Takumi Ito and Shota Kaneda felt extra lucky as they witnessed history in Saitama as striker Antoine Griezmann made his debut for Barcelona.F
The French striker recently made the move from La Liga side Atletico Madrid where he will team up with Lionel Messi in a deal worth €120 million over five years.
Although it was Griezmann’s first game with Blaugrana, he played as if he had long been a part of the famous squad.
“We hope that we’ll see Griezmann make his debut tonight,” said Shoto Kaneda in the company of his friends – all Barcelona fans – before the kick off. Kaneda added that he hoped to see Griezmann get on the score sheet so they would also witness his dance celebration that has made headlines around the world in the past.
Masaki Sato, who has been supporting Chelsea for more than 12 years, was enthusiastic to see how the Premier League club’s new lineup would fare against a Barcelona side that have won four Champions League cups since 2006.
“It might take time for the team to adapt to the new changes but I’m expecting them to win,” said Sato, who went home a happy man.
For Chelsea fan Chris Brayford, who has been living in Japan for the past eight years, it was his second time to see the London side play in Japan. He was joined by his friend and Chelsea fan Alex Miles.
“I think it’s going to be a tough game for both teams since they’ll have to acclimatize to the heat and humidity,” Brayford predicted.
A good test
“It is always great to come to Japan,” said Chelsea manager and legendary former player Frank Lampard, speaking to the media after the match, adding that the games in Japan “have been good exercises.”
Lampard’s counterpart at Barcelona, Ernesto Valverde admitted that it was a tough outing, but also took away positives. “It was a good test to prepare us, because it’s different from training.”
While the Saitama contest was Chelsea’s final game on their tour of Japan, Barcelona’s next stop is Saturday, July 27 against Vissel Kobe. That match will also make history as it will see Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, who now captains Vissel Kobe, line up against his old teammates.
Iniesta made the move to the J-League side just over a year ago and has been injecting his style and creativity into Japan’s top flight of football since his debut. The game promises to be an emotional and entertaining night of football to match the magic of Rakuten Cup’s opener.